A burning passion

🕔Dec 15, 2009

“So…getcher wood yet?”

It’s a query, an icebreaker of sorts, that’s thrown around at northern potlucks with the same frequency that “How ’bout those Canucks?” might be bantered farther south.

In the North, we live in a wood-burning culture. Whether it’s the heat emanating from a woodstove that we love, or the warm feeling of flickering flames, nearly half the homes north of Burns Lake use some sort of wood-combustion device.

And I’m not talking about the open-hearth, lounging-in-your-ski-sweater-and-sipping-chardonnay-on-the-bearskin-rug kind of fireplaces. I’m talking about the woodstove: efficient, utilitarian and deeply loved by many a Northerner.

But cozying up next to a glowing fire is only part of this burning passion. Finding, falling, bucking, transporting, splitting, chopping, stacking and constructing a woodshed—a temple from within which the devout burner offers his sacrifice—are all part of the tradition.

Keeping it clean

Recognizing that some of the hot air has been taken out of the wood-burning enthusiasm by the haze that hangs over valley bottoms during mid-winter inversions, wood heat’s romantic image has been somewhat clouded recently by environmental concerns.
In 2006, Houston became the first community in Canada to pass a bylaw making it mandatory for residents to exchange their woodstoves for new efficient ones certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by December, 2010. Smithers adopted a similar, though voluntary, bylaw at the same time. Golden, in southeastern BC, is the only community in western Canada that has gone so far as to ban the installation of new woodstoves altogether.

The controversy hasn’t cooled woodstove exchange program coordinator Colin MacLeod’s fondness for wood burning, though.
“Traditionally, the hearth was what you built the house around,” MacLeod says. “It’s way better than watching TV. It’s a beautiful, intimate thing to have in your home.”

Weighing the pros and cons of wood heat to other fuels might be a little like comparing aspen to spruce: natural gas is better for emissions, but it’s a fossil fuel that contributes to greenhouse gases and isn’t renewable; electricity comes with its own environmental costs. While wood, particularly when burned green, sends particulate matter into the atmosphere, it does have its benefits.

“I don’t like the idea of being dependent on corporations or outsiders—I like the sustainability and just the whole security,” MacLeod says of wood heat. “Right now we’re surrounded by dead forests. There’s no better resource than what’s in the backyard.”
Burning clean starts in the spring: firewood should be split and stacked early in the summer, giving it time to dry before use the following winter—or the year after. A moisture meter can be purchased inexpensively and used to test the wood. Anything with more than 20 percent moisture content shouldn’t be burned.

“I found that even wood that had been cut a year ago, if it hadn’t been bucked and split it was still over 20 percent,” says MacLeod.

Newer EPA-approved stoves, the only ones sold in BC since 1994, should be burned hot for the first 15 minutes or so before being damped down. Older stoves should only be burned hot; instead of damping down, burn smaller fires. Stoves not EPA-certified can be turned in through the woodstove exchange program for a rebate toward a new one.

“Some people do it for heat, and for some it’s a way of life: you enjoy everything from getting the wood, running the chainsaw, splitting the wood…” MacLeod says. “I was raised on wood heat. I think it’s in my blood. I would have been the tender of the hearth way back when, and that’s a role I still enjoy.”

Burning men

Which brings us to another draw for wood heat: nostalgia. Wood stoves foster a longing for childhood cottages and simpler times of living self-sufficiently off the land. Growing up in Ohio, Paul Glover took family holidays in the mountains of the eastern US, where wood heat and kerosene took the place of electricity.

“I was just so taken with that. It became the way I wanted to live. Since age 18, I’ve had wood heat and cooked on wood almost exclusively,” says Glover, who has lived in the Bulkley Valley area for 35 years. “Almost everybody loves the quality of heat—the warmth and coziness of wood heat. It’s immediate, friendly and reassuring. You feel at home around a woodstove.”

Today, Glover’s wood cookstove—located in the kitchen, the heart of the home—is practically a part of the family. His splitting-axe blade, which he estimates is more than 100 years old, is rounded at the tip from countless swings, and around the property are piles of drying wood, all with their own unique histories.

“Often I can tell a little story about the wood I’m burning,” he says, referring to wood salvaged from an old bridge or the pile of aspen that came down in a recent windstorm. Occasionally he’ll pillage the dump for lumber scraps or logs in the brush-pile. “Sometimes someone has just cleaned out their woodshed and thrown out rounds of good firewood. It’s worth a look.”

Usually, Glover salvages his firewood from logging slash-piles, which means the carbon that’s released into the air is from wood that would have been burned anyway. He points out that trees left on the ground will also release their CO2, just more slowly.

“I love handling the wood as well as the warmth it gives when it’s burned. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, the look of it,” he says. “When we come home at the end of the day the house might be quite cold, but I enjoy heating it up, feeling the house getting warmer. I love tending the fire, too—it’s very satisfying.”

Wood heat on the rise

There’s been a slight increase in wood heat usage. In the December 2008 provincial report The Heat is On: Energy Use and House Heating in BC, between 1996 and 2007 the percentage of houses using wood as a primary heat source—although significantly lower than oil, natural gas and electricity at just 3.5 percent in 2006—increased slightly, while both oil and electricity dropped.

When it comes to north versus south, Northerners seem to love their wood stoves with a slight margin over Southerners: 31 percent of households north of Quesnel have wood burning appliances, compared with 26 percent to the south, according to the 2004 report Residential Wood Burning Emissions in BC. In rural areas like the Bulkley Valley, almost 50 percent of homes burn wood for fuel.

Like MacLeod and Glover, Kevin Widen loves the self-sufficiency that comes with wood-burning. “Other sources of heat come from large corporations that keep you in their grip,” says Widen, who grew up exclusively with wood heat on the family farm outside Telkwa. “As long as I’ve got a wood stove and a supply of wood, I can keep my house and family warm.”

Meticulously burning only seasoned wood, he has his winter’s supply—four or five cords, which also happens to be the household average for the area—split and stacked by the time summer heat rolls around to dry it. In his “suburban Telkwa” home, he uses a three-year-old, high-efficiency Dutchwest stove by Vermont Castings. Recently, Widen gave up his old stove, a classic airtight he bought used in the 1990s, relegating it to his cabin out of town.

“My old Fisher single-door Papa Bear has been faithful for many years of burning. It works very well,” he says. “Compared to the modern stoves, that Fisher has been rock solid and still looks fine after 15 years of use.”

Utilitarianism and durability aside, Widen admits his new stove has one distinct benefit over the old airtights: “It’s very nice to be able to see the fire inside the stove,” he says. “It’s the most pleasing heat. There’s no substitute to being able to walk up to a nice warm stove and feel the gradient of heat as you get closer.”